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GAA's culture is now too far from its roots

By Declan Bogue

The drive towards professionalism in all but pay-for-play in the GAA is a concern of those in high-ranking positions of administration, Ryan Feeney has admitted.

Alarm bells have been ringing within the corridors of power, with the GAA releasing a recent discussion paper - 'Player Over-training and Burnout, and the GAA Fixtures Calendar'.

Despite that, anecdotal evidence in recent weeks has spoken of county teams already back in training for the 2016 season, with some out five nights a week.

Feeney shared his personal fears, stating: "I am very concerned about it. I think it's a problem. As an organisation we are about the many, not the few.

"We are a participation organisation. The more people that play our games, the better the organisation will be. The mantra wasn't 'the more people win our games'.

"Win at all costs mentality is not what the GAA is all about. That might sound trite in the modern era, in the individualistic era that we have. That's alien to the GAA. We are communitarian, we are community-based."

While Universities are now marketing themselves as centres of excellence and a pathway to county football for secondary age students with a number of bursaries handed out for 'elite athletes', Feeney feels the culture has moved too far from its roots.

"I think we have lost the plot in certain cases," he said.

"We have pushed a culture of high-performance and elitism. We need to remember that when people talk about player welfare, maybe player welfare should include giving players a rest.

"It should be making sure that we have a proper fixtures calendar and an off-season, that the players can play with their club and not just their county and they can do it in a situation when they are safe, that in later years their physiology is not going to be damaged.

"For me, the association is about participation. Elite performance and elite development is secondary to what the GAA is about and that needs to be turned on its head again."

A paradox exists in that as Gaelic football has gone from a pastime to the stage that some players feel it harms their chances of employment and their own relationships, the popularity has never been greater as witnessed by the ever-climbing attendances of the Ulster Championship since the turn of the decade.

"In 2011, we hit rock bottom, the lowest attendances we had in 20 years and there was various issues: a very difficult time economically, austerity, all of that," explained Feeney.

"But we decided to look at our ticket prices, making sure that more people had access to tickets and also ensuring there was plenty of media access and hype around the games.

"It worked. You have McKenna Cup attendances up. You have Under-21 attendances up. You have club Championship attendances up, with an average of 8-10,000 at our club finals, our big flagship event around the end of November.

"The strategy has been very simple, it's about us taking control of our own narrative.

"We have a situation now where the majority of people buy tickets in advance for our games. More people buy their ticket in advance because of the discount, instead of rocking up to the game and paying at the gate - that's been a change of culture."

Belfast Telegraph

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